Friday, April 21, 2017

The Titan by Theodore Dreiser

A head for business and a body for sin
The Titan, published in 1914, is the sequel to Theodore Dreiser’s novel The Financier and the second book in his Trilogy of Desire. Those who have read The Financier and are considering taking on this follow-up should ask themselves if they really want to devote a great deal of time to a mammoth novel centered around two unlikable characters. In The Financier, Frank Cowperwood proved himself an unethical egotist while his mistress Aileen came across as an immature, narcissistic floozy. Here they do little to discourage those first impressions. Also, while The Financier was a rags-to-riches story, The Titan is simply a riches-to-riches story, which can never be as compelling. For these reasons and others, The Titan makes an inferior sequel to the book that preceded it.

After the trouble he had in Philadelphia in The Financier, Cowperwood decides to head west and try his hand in Chicago. He manages to free himself from his wife so he can marry Aileen. Despite Cowperwood’s smooth facade and his facility for making advantageous connections in the business world, the couple’s past follows them to their new home. It’s easy for Frank to make money, but with his history of jail time and her reputation as a homewrecker, he and Aileen will never be accepted into Chicago society. Instead, they each find their social outlet in extramarital affairs. While Aileen is hurt by their ostracism from high society, Cowperwood doesn’t seem to care as long as he’s making money. He knows that one day, once he realizes his grand financial schemes, Chicago’s high and mighty will all bend to his will.

Dreiser is one of America’s great literary naturalists, which is one of the reasons why I like his work. Of the four novels I’ve read by him, however, The Titan is easily the least realistic. While The Financier educated the reader about significant events in America’s financial history, The Titan mostly concentrates on fictional dealings that evoke the general atmosphere of corruption and collusion that was rife during the late 19th century. Compared to the stock market chicanery that took place in the first book, Cowperwood’s business transactions in this volume are harder to follow and harder to find interesting. Never at any time did I find myself caring about his street railway empire. The money he makes in his ventures only serves the narrative purpose of financing his expensive love life, which makes up the other half of the book. In this area, Dreiser goes beyond melodrama and into sexual soap opera. Cowperwood juggles so many mistresses, it’s hard to believe he could conduct any business at all. Meanwhile, Aileen disappears from the story for several chapters at a time whenever it’s convenient for her to do so. New characters are introduced in every chapter, and each one gets a detailed biographical sketch, regardless of how insignificant he is to the narrative. Cowperwood himself isn’t even present for the climactic scene in the novel, which is viewed through the perspective of some of these minor characters.

The Titan is a mediocre work by a great writer. Sometimes, in order to fully appreciate the latter you’ve got to put up with the former. On the bright side, even a bad book by Dreiser is probably better than 90 percent of the other American novels published during this era. Frank Cowperwood’s life story continues in the Trilogy of Desire’s third and final installment, The Stoic. Even though I was disappointed by this volume, I’ve already invested so much time in this humdrum epic, I will likely see it through to the end.
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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Anna Christie by Eugene O’Neill

Social realism on the waterfront
Early in his career, Nobel Prize-winning American playwright Eugene O’Neill wrote many plays about the sea and sailing life. Later on he became better known for serious psychological dramas about dysfunctional families. Anna Christie, first performed in 1921, might be thought of as the turning point where those two phases of his career intersect. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922, and is generally considered to be one of O’Neill’s best works.

The play takes place around 1910 and opens at a waterfront bar in New York City. The postman gives the bartender a letter addressed to one of the saloon’s regular patrons, who arrives soon after to receive it. Chris Christopherson is a Swedish immigrant and the captain of a coal barge. The letter informs him that his daughter Anna, whom he abandoned at a young age for life at sea, will be coming to visit him in New York. Christopherson is delighted at the idea of seeing his daughter again after all these years, but filled with trepidation as to how she will respond to him and whether he will live up to her expectations. His own expectations, meanwhile, are unrealistically high. Having only known his daughter as a little girl, he expects her to be the perfect, innocent young woman, destined to be a respectable farmer’s wife. Above all, he wants her to have nothing to do with a live on the water. With an attitude of maritime mysticism, he blames the sea for all the trouble in his life and personifies it as the devil. When he finally meets Anna, it is revealed that she has not led the innocent life he dreamed for her. In order to survive, she has had to resort to less reputable means of making her way in the world. How will her past affect her relationships with the men in her life, and will the sea finally get her in the end?

O’Neill’s depiction of lower and working class characters was revolutionary for his time, though that may be difficult for today’s readers to appreciate. Prior to the 20th century, the dramatic stage was reserved for tales of the rich and royal, whereas nowadays anything goes on stage and screen, and all walks of life are represented. O’Neill’s characters and situations would have seemed crude and harsh to the theater-going public of a century ago, and even today the grittiness of his realism and the bleakness of his outlook can be jarring. His dialogue is authentically faithful to the street slang and international accents of the waterfront dives and coal barge cabins in which the story is set. O’Neill, who worked for years as a sailor and drank heavily, would have been familiar with this world. His plays have the feeling of sketches from life, like the realist paintings of the Ashcan School.

There’s an undercurrent of feminism in the play, as Anna is an independent woman who can provide for herself and even scorns men as the cause of all the problems in her life. This feminist stance is not sustained throughout, but it’s still pretty forward for American literature of the 1920s, and the role of Anna is one of the great meaty stage roles for female performers. This play was no doubt groundbreaking for its day, but a century later the plot comes across as a bit predictable, perhaps because so many unrelated films have since been built upon a similar template.

In reading this book it’s not hard to imagine yourself in the audience, or being right there in the bar with Anna and Chris. Not every playwright’s work translates well into printed form, but O’Neill is one dramatist whose writing really leaps off the page for a great reading experience.
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Monday, April 17, 2017

Giordano Bruno by Walter Pater

Style over substance
Giordano Bruno
When you download these free public domain e-book files from Amazon or Project Gutenberg you never know what you’re going to get. This one turned out to be a ten-page essay. It was originally published in an 1889 edition of the English magazine The Fortnightly Review. Author Walter Pater was a household name among 19th century literati, but he has sense faded into obscurity, at least in the minds of American readers. He was a polymath man of letters who wrote fiction, literary criticism, and essays on a variety of topics. Here he offers a brief sketch of Giordano Bruno, the 16th century Italian philosopher and Dominican monk who was burnt at the stake for heresy against the Catholic church. Among the offenses for which Bruno was executed were his pantheistic conception of God and his belief that the Earth was just one of many inhabited worlds in the universe.

Among freethinkers, Bruno is considered a hero for his intellectual integrity in the face of persecution. Although this essay is written about a man I admire, I found little to enjoy in it. Pater seems less interested in praising Bruno’s defiance of superstition or illuminating his philosophical accomplishments than he is in simply the self-aggrandizement of Walter Pater and his literary style. The whole piece is an overindulgent exercise in pretentious prose. Pater writes in grammatically challenging paragraph-long sentences consisting of strings of comma-separated phrases, the purpose of which seems to be to impress the reader with flowery language while imparting as little information as possible. Almost no facts are given about Bruno’s life and work, just Pater’s speculation of what Bruno’s intellectual development might have been like or what he was thinking at a given time in his life. There is some discussion of the scope of Bruno’s pantheism, but Pater’s way of writing about it obscures more than it reveals.

If you don’t know anything about Bruno, this work is not for you. In order to understand what Pater is saying here, you have to come to this essay with prior knowledge of who Bruno was and why he was important. If you already know that, however, you’re not going to learn anything new here. With this piece of writing, Pater demonstrates the annoying side of those 19th century Renaissance men of letters who just really loved to hear themselves talk. The essay’s one saving grace is its brevity.
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Friday, April 14, 2017

Gregorio by Percy Hemingway

Tragedy in Alexandria
Gregorio is a novella by English lawyer and author Percy Addleshaw, written under the pseudonym of Percy Hemingway. It was first published in 1895 in a collection of short fiction entitled Out of Egypt. Though the story takes place in Alexandria, Egypt, and features a Greek protagonist, it nevertheless is clearly written from a British point of view.

Gregorio is a poor man who struggles to find work and feed his family. Though he can’t scrape up enough coins to put bread into the mouths of his wife and son, all around him he sees  British tourists and sailors flaunting their wealth in the hotels, nightclubs, and bordellos of Alexandria, which inspires in him an intense hatred for the English. Gregorio has borrowed money from a Jewish moneylender named Amos, who will no longer offer him credit and demands prompt payment. Unable to pay back the loan, and fearing that his young son will starve to death, Gregorio orders his wife Xantippe to work as a prostitute to save the family.

This is an engaging story that keeps you guessing, but it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. At times it seems as if everything will wrap up neatly in the end like an O. Henry tale, imparting some moral lesson, but the plot never goes where you want it to go. At first it seems like Hemingway is writing a social justice novel that invites the reader to sympathize with Gregorio’s abject poverty, but eventually he steers you in the direction of viewing the Greek as a despicable human being. The tone of the story feels a bit like a romantic opera with its exotic locale and the way in which, at the convenient drop of a hat, characters fall in love or become intent on murder in order to move the plot forward. On the other hand, in its brutal depiction of the seamier side of life it resembles grittier naturalistic novels like Frank Norris’s McTeague or Emile Zola’s La Bête Humaine (though it’s nowhere near as good as either one of those great works).

What you end up with is a book that’s depressing as hell and pretty racist. Amos is very much the stereotype of the “filthy Jew,” a baby-stealing usurer. The Arab and Greek characters are similarly portrayed in an unflattering light. I don’t expect political correctness from 19th-century European literature, so I wasn’t so much shocked or offended by the racial slurs as I just found them lazy from a literary standpoint. Even more galling is the lofty attitude Hemingway displays toward his own countrymen. Though none of the main characters are English, the author still manages to turn the story into a white savior narrative. If there’s a lesson to be learned from Gregorio, it’s that only an Englishmen can truly satisfy a woman, because there is something about the English nature that makes them unilaterally chivalrous, righteous, and gentlemanly.

Gregorio comes across as the product of an author who exhibits indications of talent but approaches his story from a naive and misguided perspective. This certainly isn’t a terrible piece of literature for its time, but it does inspire mixed emotions today.
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Monday, April 10, 2017

Mastodonia by Clifford D. Simak

The business of time travel
In 1955, science fiction author Clifford D. Simak published a story called “Project Mastodon.” As the title might indicate, this was a tale of time travel that involved journeying into the prehistoric past. With this story, Simak brought a novel and interesting perspective to the subject, exploring not only the adventure potential of time travel, but also the political and economic ramifications such a discovery might bring about. Though the story was pretty good, it felt a bit half-baked and too lighthearted to be taken seriously. Later, however, Simak would take its basic premise, adapt it to a new cast of characters, and develop it into a full-blown novel entitled Mastodonia, published in 1978. Thank goodness he didn’t give up on the idea, because his thoughtful resurrection of this concept has resulted in a very entertaining and thought-provoking book.

Like much of Simak’s fiction, Mastodonia takes place in rural western Wisconsin. Asa Steele, a professor of paleontology, is spending his sabbatical at the farm where he grew up. He is joined there by Rila Elliot, a former paleontological colleague with whom he had a brief love affair twenty years prior. As the two become reacquainted, Asa explains to her that he has isolated himself in this secluded region in order to investigate some strange artifacts he has found on his property. Also a mysterious creature has been seen lurking through the woods. One night, Asa stumbles through a time tunnel into a land populated by prehistoric mammals who walked the earth 100,000 years ago. Through a mechanism best left unmentioned, Asa and Rila discover that they can create similar time tunnels into various periods of the past. Though they recognize the incredible research potential of time travel, they decide that in order to construct the necessary infrastructure to make time travel accessible, they must first develop it into a commercially viable business, one centered around prehistoric safaris. The first step in their business plan is to declare their prehistoric haven an independent nation, which they dub Mastodonia.

Simak has an extraordinary talent for taking the scientifically incredible and rendering it believable within the mundane details of our everyday world. A large part of his ability to do this comes from his keen understanding of human nature and his ability to craft realistic and sympathetic characters that don’t merely serve as shills for his sci-fi speculations but actually function as complex characters worthy of literature. Through Asa’s first-person narration, the reader experiences a roller coaster ride of conflicting feelings from the joy of discovery, to the weight of responsibility, to the pangs of regret.

Mastodonia did not always live up to my expectations. For one thing, I thought there would be more time travel. Unlike other sci-fi novels which concentrate on the wow factor of time travel, this one focuses more on its ethical, legal, and logistical complications. Simak defying my expectations, however, is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, truth be told, it makes for a better narrative. You never know where or when the story is going to lead, and Simak keeps you guessing right up until the very end. Though at times he may have led me down paths I didn’t want to travel, I always ended up admiring the author when we arrived at our destination. It’s a rare novel that can combine the pulp fiction thrills of a dinosaur hunt with a philosophical examination of time travel ethics. Even within Simak’s impressive body of work, Mastodonia is an exceptional read that delivers ample fun, thrills, and intellectual stimulation.
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Monday, April 3, 2017

Library: The Drama Within by Diane Asséo Griliches

A love letter to temples of literacy
I recently received a copy of this book as a graduation present for having completed a master of library science degree. Naturally, I’m a lover of libraries and books, and this artful collection of photographs really speaks to those like me who are so inclined. Library: The Drama Within is not just a showcase of the world’s most beautiful libraries. Photographer Diane Asséo Griliches really attempts to capture the function of libraries and the role they play in people’s lives. Thus, while many of the photos are glamour shots like the one of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris that graces the book’s cover, you’ll also find thoughtful images of students working together at a computer, children sitting enraptured at a story time, or two homeless men seeking companionship in a library courtyard. Most photographs are accompanied by an explanatory caption, many of which offer interesting details of the histories of the libraries depicted. Griliches also pairs each image with a brief quote about books or libraries from the likes of James Joyce, Victor Hugo, or Malcolm X.

Libraries in New York and Boston feature prominently among the selections, but there are also several photos of rural libraries in the American South. Photos from France, Israel, Croatia, Bosnia, and Italy are also included. Asia is represented by only one photo from Japan, though that particular image looks like it could have been taken anywhere. The subjects include public libraries, academic libraries, and private subscription libraries. Griliches clearly has a soft spot for rare book libraries and includes shots of many antiquated volumes in appropriately classic settings. At times the book can’t seem to decide what it wants to say. Is it about the valuable services that libraries provide, or is it merely about the books? Is it about prestigious libraries of monumental beauty, or is it about the typical libraries that most of us visit on a regular basis?

The photos are beautifully reproduced in black and white or perhaps a very subtle duotone. Though the book was published in 1996, the captions indicate that some of the pictures may have been taken as early as the 1970s. They are definitely pre-digital images, exhibiting the graininess and rich silvery tones of film photography. For its textual component, the book reproduces a 1974 essay by former Librarian of Congress Daniel J. Boorstin. In this essay, the contents of which may be familiar to many book lovers, Boorstin argues that the book is the perfect technological device for conveying information, one that is unlikely to ever be replaced by a computerized substitute.

In keeping with Boorstin’s argument, Library: The Drama Within is clearly a love letter to the bibliocentric view of the library. Libraries have changed a lot in the past 20 years, however, and at times this book can be a depressing glimpse into a nostalgic past. Television, the Internet, and video games have not killed the book, as many have predicted. In fact, it’s likely that more books are being published now than ever before. However, books are no longer the main attraction at libraries, as more and more volumes are stuffed away into cold storage to make room for computer labs, coffee shops, and maker spaces. Gone are the days when browsable open stacks would put the full range of the world’s knowledge at your fingertips. For better or worse, the library that Griliches celebrates is increasingly a thing of the past. Thank god she was there to document it.
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Friday, March 31, 2017

Timaeus by Plato

Plato’s theory of everything
This review pertains to the public domain version of Timaeus that is given away as a free ebook by Amazon and Project Gutenberg. The English translation of this edition was done by Benjamin Jowett in the late 19th century. The very first sentence of the introduction states, “Of all the writings of Plato the Timaeus is the most obscure and repulsive to the modern reader.” How’s that for an inauspicious beginning? Jowett then goes onto explain that the reason this dialogue gets little attention and respect is because it is concerned not so much with philosophical discourse as it is with the natural sciences. Not surprisingly, since Plato wrote the work around 360 BC, few if any of his scientific speculations have stood the test of time. Nevertheless, the Timaeus has value for its detailed illumination of Plato’s physical and metaphysical views on the nature of the universe and his admirably ambitious attempt at constructing a unified theory of everything.

Participants in the dialogue include Socrates, Critias, and Hermocrates, but the title character does 90% of the talking. After Critias offers up a brief discussion of the lost continent of Atlantis, Timaeus jumps right into the creation of the universe and then goes on to cover the nature of matter and soul, the structure of the heavens, and the workings of human anatomy and the senses. Plato describes the universe as an intelligent “world-animal” that encompasses all of matter, energy, and space. Building upon the atomism of Leucippus and the mathematical mysticism of Pythagoras, Plato asserts that all matter is made up of triangles which combine to form different geometrical forms for each of the four elements: earth, air, fire, and water. For a brief moment, this sounds remarkably like a pantheistic system, and the assertion that all matter is created from one universal “mother substance” hints at a materialistic monism. Of course, Plato, the godfather of dualism, soon dispels that notion. He speaks of God as a guiding creator entity clearly outside of this world-animal, and he constantly refers to the soul—in fact, there are three kinds of soul—as an essence not confined by the geometrical structure of matter. God (sometimes plural) is the primary mover who created the universe by bringing order from chaos. Plato finishes the dialogue by imagining the thought process of “the creators” as they constructed the human body.

In the Jowett edition, the Introduction and Analysis takes up more space than the dialogue itself. The analysis includes a nearly unabridged restatement of the entire dialogue, rendered in slightly more accessible vocabulary. So if you read the entire Kindle file, you’re basically reading two different translations of the dialogue. Though the analysis gets quite repetitive, it does offer some fascinating insight into the state of the sciences in the time of ancient Greece.

Perhaps because I’m of a predominantly Aristotelian mindset, I see few lessons of wisdom to take away from Timaeus that might be relevant to modern life. At times there is an underlying message that resembles Stoicism, with Plato suggesting that he who seeks the divine nature in God’s system and lives in accordance with nature will enjoy the healthiest, most pleasurable life. Though philosophically this is not regarded as one of Plato’s stronger dialogues, it does provide a fascinating glimpse into the world of ancient science. Despite the contradictions in his reasoning, Plato’s unified theory of nature is quite ingenious. Even those with a more materialistic mindset, though unlikely to agree with his idealistic vision, can admire his intellectual achievement.
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